President McKinley Shot! from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”
“Be Careful how you tell her, oh be careful.” --William McKinley
Assassin Leon Czolgosz’s 32-caliber Iver Johnson Safety Automatic Revolver
Susan Bercu, painting (Actual pistol in collection of Buffalo History Museum)
President McKinley shot! As soon as Robert Lincoln stepped off the train in Buffalo, New York, he was handed a telegram with the shocking news. He was with his family to see the President while on their visit to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition–the glorious promise of the 20th century.
“President McKinley Shot!” shows the Pan-American Exposition where the assassination took place. Sumptuous exhibit halls on the 350-acre park dazzled with the wonder of electric lights powered by the nearby Niagara Falls. The official logo showing the North and South in the shapes of two ladies joining hands represented the commercial well-being among the American Republics. In his evening address at the fair, and in what would be his last speech, President William McKinley said, “Expositions are the timekeepers of progress.”
Inside the domed Temple of Music, the
magnificent organ was playing while the
President greeted a long line of fair-goers. When McKinley saw the white wrapping on the next person’s hand, he thought it was a bandage. Instead, it was a revolver hidden by a white handkerchief. Leon Czolgosz, a self-described anarchist, shot twice. One bullet entered McKinley’s abdomen. As he slumped to the ground, his first thoughts were for his wife Ida. “Be careful how you tell her, oh be careful.”
When several men tackled the assassin, McKinley called out, “Be easy with him, boys.”
McKinley conducted his first presidential campaign from his Canton, Ohio front porch rather than compete on the stump with the captivating orator William Jennings Bryan. Although Bryan espoused a populace platform on a whirlwind tour across the country, McKinley won the election with the advantage of an enormous treasure chest provided by his donors. They even built a railroad bringing potential voters to him with a ticket price so low that one passenger said, “It’s cheaper than staying at home.” This was during the exploding industrial revolution where laborers swarmed from the farms into factories. The country was prosperous in the manner of the rich becoming richer and the workers suffering in abysmal sub-wage conditions.
McKinley advocated the gold standard (instead of silver), symbolized by the gold coin on the reverse of the diorama. A gold prospector who supported McKinley renamed Denali Mountain after him. McKinley showed no interest in the naming and never visited the mountain.
Immediate response to the shooting was a frenzy of sloppy newspaper reporting. When Czolgosz said that he was influenced by the speeches of known anarchist Emma Goldman, she was arrested and vilified by the press as “The high priestess of anarchy.” After two weeks, she was released for lack of evidence involving her in the assassination and she disappeared briefly from public view.
The attending physicians were unable to locate the bullet lodged in the President. Thomas Edison was refused the offer of his new X-ray machine to help the search. Gangrene set in and William McKinley would die eight days after he was shot at the age of 58, having served only six months into his second term.
North & South Logo
painted cardboard, detail
“President McKinley Shot! ” from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”
Diorama 19 in. wide x 18 in. high x 10 in. deep
Leon Czolgosz in Jail
Newspaper photo, 1901
Emma Goldman, Susan Bercu
paint, diorama detai
The McKinley Grip President McKinley was more concerned about straining his right “shaking” hand during receptions than taking precautions about his life. When greeting his guests, he would squeeze a man’s fingers on the right hand firmly, then grab the man’s elbow with his left hand to move him along quickly so he could greet the next person in line.
No Electric Light Paradoxically, the operating room at the exposition's emergency hospital where McKinley was transferred did not have electric lighting even though many of the building exteriors were covered with thousands of light bulbs.
Inventors Tried to Save Two Different Presidents Thomas Edison’s rebuffedX-ray machine had a strangely similar precedent. Twenty years earlier, when Alexander Graham Bell offered his newly invented metal detector called the Induction Balance to locate the assassin’s bullet inside of President Garfield, his advice was ignored.
Light and Death Leon Czolgosz was executed in the electric chair. His electrocution was filmed by Thomas Edison, known as inventor of the light bulb. In fact there were earlier inventors. His was the first commercially practical incandescent light. Edison, who was opposed to capital punishment, would eventually have input into electrocution, considered more humane than hanging.
Emma Goldman was revived as an icon in the 1970s Feminist Movement. Goldman disappeared then re-emerged after Czolgosz was executed. Her public activism for various causes including the rights of workers and women led to her imprisonment again and ultimately, deportation even though she was a US citizen.
The Secret Service was founded at the end of the American Civil War to combat widespread counterfeiting of US currency. It wasn’t until 1901 with the death of William McKinley, the third president in US history to be assassinated, that the agency began its protective mission
Niagara Falls Commemorative Stamp
Susan Bercu, paint, diorama detail
Buffalo Susan Bercu
painted cardboard, diorama detail
The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln
“President McKinley Shot!” is one diorama in “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”. Robert was associated with the assassinations of three American presidents. In April 1865, he attended the death bed of his father, Abraham Lincoln. In 1881, he witnessed the shooting of James Garfield. In 1901, he would arrive at the train station in Buffalo, NY, moments after President William McKinley was shot at the nearby Pan-American Exposition.
Robert Todd Lincoln
Susan Bercu, pencil